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Coach class manifesto

Yesterday I flew across the country, from Dulles to Seattle. The United flight lasted five and a half hours—a tough slog even in ideal conditions.

Worse? I was flying coach, which multiplies the suffering. Like many airlines, United seems determined to nickel-and-dime their passengers to death (or at least to discomfort). Every nicety that once made air travel bearable now costs extra. Want to watch live TV? Slide your credit card. Hungry? Buy a $10, disgusting meal. Need an amount of leg space that won’t induce deep vein thrombosis? That’ll be $89.

In this passenger-hostile environment, every last dignity deserves to be defended. Yes, flying is miserable, but by following an unspoken social contract, you can at least make it bearable for your fellow flyers.

Here’s my coach-class manifesto:

  • Other passengers’ personal space is sacred and inviolable. Your seatmates are already crammed into a unhealthy, inhumane amount of space. Don’t make it worse by invading that precious little room. A few guidelines: as a courtesy to the beleagured middle-seat passenger, that person gets first dibs over both armrests, on either side. This is fair; the other passengers own the outer armrests and can lean away, but the middle passenger has nowhere to go. An addendum, however: no one should ever allow his or her arm (let alone belly or other body part) to pass over a shared armrest. (I’m talking to you, dude in 28E yesterday.)
  • Along the same lines, passengers own the space in front of them. Reclining seat backs spur many arguments over traveling etiquette. But the rule is simple: never recline your seat back without permission from the passenger behind you. That person may resent having his knees crushed. If you don’t get consent before catapulting yourself into his personal space, your victimized rear neighbor is free to kick, knee and shove your seat at will. There is one exception to the seat-back rule. If your rearward neighbor has already reclined her seat—and especially if she’s sleeping—you may recline yours without asking first.
  • The space beneath the seat in front of you is yours. If another passenger’s belongings slip into that space, you can claim them as your own.
  • Don’t be over-friendly. Greet your seatmates courteously when you first sit down. If they’re responsive and talkative, feel free to continue the conversation. If not, let them suffer the indignities of air travel in silence. Never look directly at your seatmate when talking to them. And never (ever!) touch your seatmate—even passive contact may be intensely uncomfortable for others.
  • Don’t do anything gross. On my flight yesterday, my seatmate would occasionally self-administer a sadistic sort of chiropractic treatment. He’d grip his head with both hands, then violently wrench his neck from side to side. He did this at least once an hour, and it freaked me out every time. Along these lines, don’t trim your fingernails, pick your nose, scratch, or do anything else that could potentially bother your neighbor. If you feel any of these urges, visit the lavatory, so that your fellow passengers don’t need to witness.

Air travel is awful, but it helps to remember that it’s awful for everyone else, too. You aren’t suffering alone! Be conscious of other passengers’ comfort, and we’ll all get through this together. Then, happily, we never have to see each other ever again.